1421: The Year China Discovered America
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1421: The Year China Discovered America [Paperback]

Gavin Menzies
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (417 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A former submarine commander in Britain's Royal Navy, Menzies must enjoy doing battle. The amateur historian's lightly footnoted, heavily speculative re-creation of little-known voyages made by Chinese ships in the early 1400s goes far beyond what most experts in and outside of China are willing to assert and will surely set tongues wagging. According to Menzies's brazen but dull account of the Middle Kingdom's exploits at sea, Magellan, Dias, da Gama, Cabral and Cook only "discovered" lands the Chinese had already visited, and they sailed with maps drawn from Chinese charts. Menzies alleges that the Chinese not only discovered America, but also established colonies here long before Columbus set out to sea. Because China burned the records of its historic expeditions led by Zheng He, the famed eunuch admiral and the focus of this account, Menzies is forced to defend his argument by compiling a tedious package of circumstantial evidence that ranges from reasonable to ridiculous. While the book does contain some compelling claims-for example, that the Chinese were able to calculate longitude long before Western explorers-drawn from Menzies's experiences at sea, his overall credibility is undermined by dubious research methods. In just one instance, when confounded by the derivation of cryptic words on a Venetian map, Menzies first consults an expert at crossword puzzles rather than an etymologist. Such an approach to scholarship, along with a promise of more proof to come in the paperback edition, casts a shadow of doubt over Menzies's discoveries. 32 pages of color illus., 27 maps and diagrams. Book-of-the-Month Club alternate.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Menzies makes the fascinating argument that the Chinese discovered the Americas a full 70 years before Columbus. Not only did the Chinese discover America first, but they also, according to the author, established a number of subsequently lost colonies in the Caribbean. Furthermore, he asserts that the Chinese circumnavigated the globe, desalinated water, and perfected the art of cartography. In fact, he believes that most of the renowned European explorers actually sailed with maps charted by the Chinese. Though most historical records were destroyed during centuries of turmoil in the Far East, he manages to cobble together some feasible evidence supporting his controversial conclusions. Sure to cause a stir among historians, this questionable tale of adventure on the high seas will be hotly debated in academic circles. Margaret Flanagan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Captivating . . . a historical detective story . . . that adds to our knowledge of the world, past and present." -- Daily News

"No matter what you think of Menzies’s theories, his enthusiasm is infectious." -- Christian Science Monitor

From the Inside Flap

Compelling evidence that the Chinese were the first great maritime explorers -- not the Europeans. Rewrite the history books!

In 1421, the largest fleet the world had ever seen sailed from its base in China. The ships, huge junks nearly 500 feet long and built from the finest teak, were under the command of Emperor Zhu Di?s loyal eunuch admirals. Their mission was to proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas and unite the whole world in Confucian harmony. Their journey would last over two years and circle the globe.

When they returned, Zhu Di had lost power and China was beginning its long, self-imposed isolation from the world. The great ships rotted and the records of their journeys were destroyed. Lost was the knowledge that Chinese ships had reached America 70 years before Columbus and circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan. They had also discovered Antarctica, reached Australia 350 years before Cook, and solved the problem of longitude 300 years before the Europeans.

In this fascinating historical detective story, Gavin Menzies shares the remarkable account of his discoveries and the incontrovertible evidence supporting them. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Gavin Menzies is the bestselling author of 1421: The Year China Discovered America, 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance, and The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History's Greatest Mystery Revealed. His ideas have been profiled in the New York Times Magazine and the Wall Street Journal, and he has lectured at the Library of Congress, Royal Geographical Society, National Maritime Museum, and other prestigious venues. He served in the Royal Navy between 1953 and 1970. His knowledge of seafaring and navigation sparked his interest in the epic voyages of Chinese Admiral Zheng He. Menzies lives in London.

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Voyage of Zhou Wen

In October 1421, when the fleets of hong bao and zhou Man had sailed south-west from the entrance to the Caribbean towards the coast of South America, they had left the fleet of Admiral Zhou Wen taking a course to the north-west following the northern branch of the equatorial current. I already knew that this fleet must have later reached the Azores, at the latitude of Beijing, for the islands appear on the Kangnido map, drawn before the first Europeans discovered those islands. My task was now to find where Zhou Wen had sailed between those two landfalls.

When Admiral Zhou Wen reached the Cape Verde Islands he had already sailed across a substantial part of the globe and must have known that the mysterious land of Fusang lay to the west of him. By the time of the great cartographer Chu Ssu Pen (1273-1337), the Chinese had made an accurate estimate of the distance from the Pacific to the Atlantic, but how far to the west Zhou Wen thought Fusang lay would depend on how far he considered he had already sailed. The Kangnido shows that, because of the effects of the ocean currents, the Chinese fleets had underestimated their voyage across the 'bulge' of Africa by a couple of thousand miles. As he lay at anchor at Santo Ant‹o in the Cape Verde Islands, Zhou Wen might well have assumed that Fusang lay four thousand rather than two thousand miles to the west of him, but that was still well within his range, without the need for fresh provisions or water en route.

North of the equator, the Atlantic is a vast oval-shaped wind and current system rotating clockwise day in, day out, throughout the year. British Admiralty sailing directions advise mariners on how to make use of these winds and currents: 'From Madeira the best track is to pass just west of, but in sight of, the Cape Verde Archipelago . . . from Cape Verde steer a direct course [for the Caribbean] . . . thereafter . . . the north equatorial current and south equatorial current converge, forming a broad band of current setting west. Average rates reach 2 knots.' From the Cape Verde Islands they carry the mariner due west to the Caribbean, then north-west towards Florida and north up the American seaboard before taking him clockwise to the east, where the current becomes the Gulf Stream carrying the mariner across the Atlantic to the Azores, a thousand miles west of Portugal. It then hooks southwards, back once again to the Cape Verde Islands. The commander of a ship with sufficient provisions can hoist sail off the Cape Verde Islands and sit back and do nothing. Provided he is not capsized by a storm, a common occurrence in the North Atlantic, he will eventually end up more or less where he started.

The westerly current from the Cape Verde Islands reaches its strongest flow when approaching the Caribbean at the latitude of the island of Dominica. As a result, explorer after explorer down the centuries - Columbus on his second voyage, the Spanish explorers Rodrigo de Bastida and Juan de la Cosa in the early years of the sixteenth century, the French and English fleets during the Napoleonic Wars - has entered the Caribbean through the passage between Dominica and Guadeloupe. I would put the likelihood as high as 80 per cent that if, having replenished with fruit and fresh water, the Chinese had sailed from the Cape Verde Islands in October they would have been entering the Caribbean by early November.

The track of the junks of Admiral Zhou Wen's fleet through the Caribbean should logically have been the same as that of Columbus, for the winds and tides have remained unaltered from that day to this. Whatever the Chinese discovered should have been rediscovered by Columbus seventy years later. By examining Columbus's diaries of his second voyage, I should be able to reconstruct the most likely track. If the Chinese had found any islands or land on their voyage across the North Atlantic, I could expect those discoveries to be recorded on charts drawn after they returned to China in 1423. Just as I had done for South America and Australia, I now began to search for a chart that, like the Piri Reis and Jean Rotz maps, appeared to depict lands Europeans had yet to discover.

In that era, Venice, the base of Fra Mauro, the Venetian cartographer working for the Portuguese government, led the West in mapmaking. As I expected, Venetian and Catalan charts (Catalonia was then part of the Kingdom of Aragon; the Catalans were redoubtable seafarers) drawn before 1423 disclosed nothing new in the western Atlantic, but a chart dated 1424 and signed by the Venetian cartographer Zuane Pizzigano was an entirely different matter. The Pizzigano chart was rediscovered some seventy years ago and in the early 1950s it was sold to the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota. Its authenticity and provenance have never been questioned and several books have been written about it by distinguished historians.

[The 1424 chart] is a document of capital importance to the history of geography. From the historical point of view, it is undoubtedly one of the most, if not the most, precious jewel yielded by the disclosure of the almost unknown treasures contained in the unique collection of early manuscripts assembled by Sir Thomas Phillips during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century. The great importance of this chart lies in the fact that it is the first to represent a group of four islands in the western Atlantic, called Saya, Satanazes, Antilia and Ymana . . . there are many and good reasons for concluding that the Antilia group of four islands shown for the first time in the 1424 chart should be regarded as the earliest cartographic representation of any American lands.

This was high praise indeed. I made a close study of the chart (see Introduction). It is markedly different from its contemporaries. It is not centred on the Mediterranean, as earlier charts were, but looks westwards across the Atlantic, where two large islands, Antilia and Satanazes, hitherto unknown to Europeans, are depicted. Two smaller islands are also shown: Saya, a parabolic island to the south of Satanazes, and the box-shaped island of Ymana to the north of Antilia.

Other accounts of the era put the islands '700 large leagues' west of the Canaries, which would put them near the Bahamas, but no large islands are located there. Were the islands imaginary? Other chartmakers clearly believed they were genuine, for the group was subsequently represented on at least nineteen fifteenth-century maps and two globes, all of them drawn before Columbus set sail (see chapter 17). But as time went by, successive cartographers relocated the islands further and further to the south-west, until they ended up in the Netherlands Antilles.

The Portuguese names on the chart had made me presume that they were the original cartographers, but the names on the Piri Reis and the Jean Rotz charts were also in Portuguese and they could not possibly have been the discoverers of the Antarctic, Patagonia or Australia. Portuguese records in the Torre do Tombo, the National Archives of Portugal in Lisbon, state unequivocally that Henry the Navigator sent caravels to discover Antilia after he had received a similar but slightly later chart (the 1428 World Map discussed in chapter 4). Moreover, in 1424 the Portuguese simply did not have the capacity to survey the islands with such accuracy - for the carto-graphy of Antilia was amazingly good. I concluded that it could only have been the Chinese. However, I needed further proof that this was the case, and I found once again that the best way of tackling this puzzle was to put myself in the cartographers' shoes. When in submarines, we used to spend time in the Barents Sea photographing military installations. Part of our training was in periscope photography and the obscure art of constructing charts from near sea level. At the time I was working from about the same height as the cartographers of the Pizzigano chart, standing on the deck of a medieval ship.

As Zhou Wen's ships approached the Caribbean, they would have had warning some two days out that they would shortly sight land. Clouds, winds, weather and sea-bird types would all change, and finally, a few hours before the islands became visible, the crew would have begun to detect the soft, subtle smell of wet foliage. Because Columbus sailed through the Dominica Passage on a Sunday, he named the island to the south Dominica, the Spanish name for that day of the week; that to the north was named Marie-Galante after his flagship. He first landed at Marie-Galante but found little and pushed on northwards with the current, landing the next day at an island he named Guadeloupe in memory of his visit to a monastery of that name in Extremadura in Spain. Had they known, the monks might have raised objections to his choice of name, for the inhabitants of the island were Carib cannibals. Dr Chanca, a chronicler of Columbus's second voyage, recorded his men striding through the soft sand into the coconut groves where they found 'houses, about 30, built with logs or poles interwoven with branches and huge reeds and thatched . . . with palm . . . square and cottage like . . . For dishes [they use] calabashes [a gourd] . . . and, oh horrors!, human skulls for drinking vessels.' Only women were left in the villages; the native men had fled to the hills in terror at the sight of the sails of Columbus's fleet.

The stench of bodies horrified Columbus's men. 'Limbs of human bodies hung up in houses as if curing for provisions; the head of a youth so recently severed from the body that the blood was yet dripping from it, and parts of his body were roasting before the fire, along with savoury flesh of geese and parrots.' The natives used arrow-heads made from human bones, and in their attacks upon the neighbouring islands, these people capture as many of the women as they can, especially those who are young and beautiful, and keep them as concubines . . . they eat the children which they bear to them . . . Such of their male en... --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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